Your business was on a successful trajectory. You were hitting all your milestone targets. You could see your staff becoming increasingly effective and efficient with every passing day. The financial risk you took to get your business running was looking like a smart decision.
One morning, your world was turned completely upside down by something called COVID-19. You were told this new virus was highly contagious and for far too many deadly. Health experts declared the only way to minimize the impact of the virus was for you to shut down your business until broad scale social distancing could stem the accelerating number of people being hospitalized from the infection. Your business was not classified as essential, so you complied with the government mandate because it was the right thing to do. You complied despite the unavoidable negative impact on your P&L.
Now, the same experts have declared your location is over the expected apex of hospital visits and it is time to start opening the economy in phases. There are certain new requirements you need to follow issued by the federal, state and local governments. You understand these constraints and are ready to move forward with the task of getting back in business. But, beyond compliance with the new health requirements, what should you do to help ensure your employees get back to the performance level they were delivering before the war on COVID-19 began?
Here are some tips to consider:
- Start by addressing the human side. Your employees just went through a very scary period and some (if not many) will be concerned if they will be safe coming back to work. Recognize, it is highly unlikely your company will be returning to business as usual. There will be new rules and new ways of interacting. If you try to address these situations on a case-by-case basis, employee morale and production will be at risk. You need a formal change management approach that gets integrated into your decision making process. You need to think through what data to collect to monitor compliance with new health regulations, think through any impacts on processes and procedures, and create a realistic assessment of organizational readiness before deciding to reopen. In all probability you will need to redesign some of your strategies, systems and processes. In addition, you should establish a formal and predictable process for employee engagement/communication. Plan this in advance of reopening and do not try and create it on the fly.
- Ensure top management understands your new approach and is fully committed to successful execution. If your business leaders don’t buy in, your employees never will. Understand your people will be going through stressful times with the reopening. They will have questions and concerns. You need to ensure management speaks with one voice to avoid creating confusion and fear. No making things up. If managers don’t know the answer to an employee question they need to have a process to get a definitive answer and ensure all managers understand it so employees get a consistent response regardless of whom they ask.
- Involve everybody. Don’t simply involve your management team and expect employees will blindly follow direction. Now more than ever explaining the why behind the what is critical. Employees want to have confidence in the logic of your choices. Whenever practical, involve employees in the decision making process. That can look like talking with employees to get input before a choice is made, and or following-up with them to understand the impact of the decision made. Engagement and enrollment are key to building employee trust and confidence. This is a perfect time to reinforce your organization’s guiding principles and demonstrate how those principles play into the decision making process.
- Articulate the rationale for final decisions. People are inherently logical, but when they have information gaps they make up things to fill the gaps. Don’t let that happen. It is the rare decision that does not draw criticism. And it is the rare problem that is solved with a simple solution. The truth is most of the time you are selecting the judgmentally best solution rather than the perfect solution. Explain your rationale. It won’t eliminate disagreements with your decision, but it will build confidence in your employees that you are thinking things through rather than simply reacting. Often lack of confidence is the reason for implementation failure.
- Create employee ownership. Help employees understand their role in safely reopening your company. Don’t sugar coat the uncertainties. Explain the benefits of compliance, but also explain the risks on non-compliance. You have hired adults and in uncertain times it is best to treat them as adults. This does not mean you don’t have to monitor compliance, but creating individual ownership will dramatically improve the odds that employee behavior will be consistent with what is required to be compliant.
- Provide timely feedback. Your employees will want to know what is going right and what is off track. You will often find, because they are closer to execution, they can provide useful feedback to address off track behavior. Involving them in solution finding will pay cultural dividends. Status updates provide employees with facts, and when everybody is operating with the same set of facts the rumor mill is generally neutralized.
- Have a contingency plan and communicate it. Reopening your business in this pandemic carries risk. Things may not go exactly as you plan. There is the possibility you might have to shut down your operation a second time. Don’t bury your head in the sand and ignore this risk. Plan for it. Define the triggers and how you will be monitoring them. Explain what employees can do to help you mitigate the risk.
- Speak to the individual. Everybody’s personal circumstances are different. People matter. Have a process for individual employees to get their questions answered and concerns addressed. If you have a non-compliant employee, deal with it one-on-one. In this uncertain time non-compliance with regulations cannot be tolerated. Realign individual success measures to be consistent with the new behavior you want exhibited. Visibly reward employees who fully embrace the mission of safely reopening your business. And, after providing appropriate feedback along with a chance to correct behavior, quickly cut loose employees who refuse to comply with the directed changes. The penalty for non-compliance is too great to ignore this destructive behavior.